(Rest)room for Improvement
Adding or Upgrading Restroom Facilities to Meet Visitor Expectations
Parks are always looking for ways to attract visitors and keep them onsite. And whether a site offers recreation, fitness or entertainment opportunities, or simply respite and relaxation, one common denominator that can have a major impact when it comes to drawing visitors and keeping them around longer is the restroom. In fact, sub-par restroom facilities—or offering no restrooms at all—is a top complaint among park users.
Mount St. Mary Park sits along the Fox River in St. Charles, Ill. The 30-acre park features a playground, picnic pavilion, basketball and tennis courts, a skatepark and a 1.7-mile paved loop that connects to other trail systems, bringing a lot of bicyclists, walkers and runners through the park. For years the park offered outdated vault toilet options—one each for men and women—even though the park had access to sewer and water hookups. In April 2019, construction started on a new restroom facility, and when it opened in October of last year, the park district's Facebook page shared comments from satisfied park users. "I'm so impressed with the new restroom—such a great improvement! I have a toddler so any parks that have a restroom close are on the top of our list," read one post from a happy patron. One post simply said, "Yay!"
Construction of the restroom was contracted out, with interim design reviews performed by park staff. The structure sits on a slab and features a lap siding and cultured stone exterior, standing-seam metal roof and stainless-steel fixtures. There are three separate facilities within the structure—men's, women's and family/gender-neutral, with a maintenance/storage closet included. The family restroom is winterized and heated for year-round use, marking the first time that a freestanding flushable restroom will be open all year in the park system.
In 2016, a community survey in St. Charles showed that nearly two-thirds of district residents expressed a need for outdoor flushable toilets at the site, mostly coming from women with two-plus children in their household. That need was included in the development of the district's 2018 Comprehensive Master Plan, with capital improvement funds allocated to design, engineer, bid and construct the restrooms in the first year of the five-year action plan.
But of course, not every park district or municipality has the funds set aside to construct restrooms from the ground up at their various sites.
Jeremy Smith is the building products manager for a Midland, Va.-based manufacturer of precast concrete buildings serving a wide variety of applications. Their single and double restroom units are delivered to the site pre-assembled, pre-plumbed and pre-wired, and as Smith explained, that means there will be minimal disturbance at the building site. "By delivering the building as a complete unit, there is considerably less time spent onsite, reducing overall construction schedules. The off-site assembly greatly reduces the space needed to complete the job with less workers present on parklands, etc."
In most cases, according to Smith, the customer will prepare the soil sub-base and provide water/waste/electrical stub-ups on the restroom models that require them, and then Smith's company will set the building with a crane. "In many cases, the restroom can be hooked up to the utilities and be ready to use the same day."
Smith explained that larger, multi-module units—which are pre-manufactured and then site-assembled—might take two to three days for installation. "In a few cases, we can provide the site work as well if the locality doesn't have the means."
Gary Burger, director of commercial operations for a manufacturer of prefabricated concrete restrooms and other buildings for national, state and municipal parks, added that while the client usually completes site preparation, his company can assist if requested, and they do provide the necessary drawings to complete the site work as part of their package. His company's flush restrooms are also pre-wired, pre-plumbed and tested before shipping to meet local code requirements.
When asked about the advantages of the precast concrete versus a built-in-place structure, Burger echoed that the hookup of the utility lines can be completed in a matter of hours. "Water, sewage and electrical utility lines are stubbed up through the prepared base material to match up with the utility blockout within the floor of the chase area," he said. "Minimal site work is required; no kits, cement blocks or tilt-up panels are necessary."
The prefab concrete structures are fully accessible and come in a multitude of configurations: single, double, multi-user, unisex and family assist. They feature high snow loads, wind loads, seismic design and are even bullet tested. Many design options are available. "Our buildings are aesthetically designed and can match local architectural details," said Burger. "Multiple floor plans are also available. We have 28 standard colors and 12 standard textures to choose from." Wall textures include barnwood, stucco, aggregate, split-face block, board & bat, horizontal lap siding, brick, flagstone, Napa Valley rock and river rock. Roof textures include cedar shake, ribbed metal, aggregate and tile.
Utilizing a standard design is typically most cost-effective, according to Smith, though they will do custom designs when needed. "In some cases, due to space constraints, design utilization or aesthetic reasons, a custom option may be the way to go. Precast concrete has the flexibility to match most surrounding architecture and is very flexible in finishes available to the customer." Most models feature chase areas that can be used for storage, and many models can be expanded to include additional storage where needed.
Combination buildings—such as restroom and concession structures—are also an option, and Smith said these are popular with larger sports complexes and smaller neighborhood parks as well. "Loudon County (in Northern Virginia) has bought dozens of buildings over the years, including a number of larger combo buildings for their numerous sports complexes. Even as one of the top two richest counties in the U.S., they see the cost and time benefits of using prefabricated-designed buildings."
Burger said the restroom/shower combo buildings are very popular in developed campgrounds, which are found in many state parks, for instance. "They provide campgrounds with showers and toilets that are easy to maintain and are very well-received with campers. We also add other rooms such as laundry, changing rooms, campground storage rooms and locker rooms, which add more utility to each location."
When it comes to restroom fixtures, Smith explained that stainless-steel fixtures are popular as they're "the most vandal-resistant and fairly easy to maintain. Porcelain fixtures are still installed in certain locations where they want a 'less industrialized' look. In remote dry restrooms, a sturdy, plastic toilet riser is still the norm."
Of course, in more remote parks and wilderness areas without water and sewer access, vault or "dry" restroom versions are often utilized. These feature a concrete waste vault that is periodically pumped out, and each single vault may have a 1,000-gallon capacity. In fact, Burger said they've installed more vault buildings than flush buildings, "about 15,000 vault buildings and 10,000 flush/shower."
When it comes to keeping the vault structures more inviting, Burger said they use the "tried and true Sweet Smelling Technology that the U.S. Forest Service designed and developed over years of testing. The system eliminates odors without fans or a need for mechanical equipment that can break. We have added solar fans that can enhance the system."
Smith expounded on the FAN (Fresh Air Naturally) ventilation process, based on the long-standing National Park Service directive regarding dry restroom installation and use. "When a dry restroom is designed and installed with the site location prevailing winds and sun direction taken into account, the vault odor is greatly controlled, making the restroom experience much more pleasant for the park-goers." They also offer the solar fans in the top of the vent stacks to increase airflow. Solar light packages are also available, and the use of opaque windows can help utilize daylight.
These days it's also possible to provide a vault restroom with flush toilets and hand wash sinks. Kyle Earlywine is co-owner of a Vancouver, Wash.-based company specializing in flush restrooms that don't require utilities. The self-contained flush vault restrooms utilize a water storage tank installed in a mechanical room, with enough on-board storage capacity of sinks, flush and wastewater for thousands of uses. "The water comes from either an onsite connection or hauling water to the restroom," said Earlywine. If potable water is unavailable, flush water can be processed through high-efficiency filters and can come from harvested rainwater, irrigation or another non-potable water source.
Earlywine's company strives to maximize energy and water conservation, reducing water consumption up to 70% compared with conventional flush restrooms by using one-quart toilets, waterless urinals and low-flow faucets. Used sink water can be filtered and reused for flushing. Optional solar power can provide any power needed for electrical components, though grid or battery power can also be utilized.
Conventional flush restrooms are also offered by Earlywine's company, and he points out how much less expensive modular restrooms are compared to site-built versions. He explained how the conventionally-plumbed restrooms can come with a small basement that allows for more sustainable features. "With the basement, fixtures can flush down rather than behind, which uses less water. The basement acts as the foundation, which can allow for less ground disturbance in sensitive areas. There is also a root cellar effect that can help keep the restroom warm in the winter and cool in the summer rather than relying solely on heaters and air conditioners."
The modular buildings come with precast foundations, which reduce construction impacts and allows for running existing plumbing below the floor, providing more efficient floor plans and cost-effective utilization of interior spaces.
Standard floor plans feature a myriad of options when it comes to interior and exterior finishes and colors, as well as fixtures and accessories. But custom plans are also available. "Changing the floor plan or other parts of the design is not only easy, it's fun," said Earlywine. "We enjoy working with architects whose clients want something unique, and we are there to advise on cost implications for the different design elements."
The company will also assist with installation if requested. "With video conferencing being what it is, we are surprised customers still want us on site. Although, it's not a bad investment to have an expert right there and ready," he said.
Security is also a major consideration, according to Smith. "The great thing about precast concrete restrooms and facilities is the fact that they are incredibly hard to infiltrate. With a strong, secure entry, there is not much a vandal can do to harm these buildings. Anti-graffiti coatings make graffiti easy to remove if that is a problem." Smith's company utilizes galvanized steel insulated doors on their structures.
"Our vandal-resistant engineering minimizes abusive wear and maximizes our structures' service life," said Burger. "Some of these features include vandal-resistant motion-sensor LED lighting, electronic locking systems and anti-graffiti coating." Additionally, lights can be mounted high and plumbing valves can be placed in the chase area away from the public. In fact, the restrooms have few exposed controls or mounts, and vandal-proof fixtures are more difficult to damage.
Of course, keeping the restroom clean is of utmost importance, and manufacturers are well aware that it's crucial to focus on ease of cleaning when designing their structures. No matter how modern or convenient a facility is, patrons will typically only remember if it was dirty or clean when they visited. And with coronavirus concerns on everyone's mind, cleanliness has taken on a whole new level of urgency.
"Our long-standing view toward cleaning restrooms has been to make it as easy as possible for our customers to provide safe and clean facilities for their patrons," said Smith. "The use of epoxy coatings inside the restroom and stainless-steel fixtures, along with our floor-to-wall radius cove system, eliminates many of the opportunities for germs and dirt to accumulate. Our precast buildings naturally resist mildew, rot, etc., while easily being cleaned." A radius where the wall meets the floor makes it easy to hose out the interior. The radius-shaped grout creates easy-to-clean joints that don't collect grime. Also, wall-mounted fixtures make it easier to clean underneath.
All of our story contributors offer touchless fixtures as an option. "We are beginning to offer restroom fixtures that have anti-microbial coatings, as well as automated entries and sensors (hands-free fixtures) within the restroom to address the latest COVID-related fears," said Smith. "We are definitely seeing more interest in these items."
Back in Illinois, a spokesperson for the St. Charles Park District tells us that with the onset of the virus, cleaning of their new facility has been increased to three to four times a day following CDC requirements. "Surfaces are very durable, non-porous and easy to clean, with porcelain tile walls, solid surface partitions and epoxy floor."
Earlywine explained that since their restrooms can be customized, it allows them to construct the structure in whatever way the customer feels would be the easiest for them to clean and maintain. In fact, on their website they offer a Tips & Advice section with helpful articles and blogs. Posted there are three articles authored by Earlywine's brother Kip that focus on public restrooms in the COVID-19 era: "Designing Restrooms Around Covid"; "Maintaining Public Restrooms in a Pandemic"; and "How to Safely Use Public Restrooms During a Pandemic."
According to Earlywine, these articles discuss meaningful changes that parks can make immediately to make their facilities safer and make their patrons more at ease. He went on to highlight a few of the points that he feels are the most important:
>> "Maximize ventilation by keeping doors open or installing a fan—the virus is most commonly transferred through droplets in the air. Ventilation will move the virus out of the restroom. Frequently refill soap and hand-sanitizer dispensers.
>> "Replace existing fixtures with hands-free activators—this is easiest and most helpful with the sink faucets.
>> "Tape off or cover over some fixtures to create greater separation between users- social distancing is important even in the bathroom."
One extra suggestion that Kip Earlywine mentioned is to consider permanent signage that encourages restroom users to wash their hands, wear masks and practice social distancing. He points out that just as the Americans with Disabilities Act changed the culture of restroom design, the coronavirus will likely do the same. "Having convenient restrooms available to the public has been a major factor in improving health around the world," he wrote. "Public restrooms are not going away, nor should they. We must all do our part to make them as safe as possible both for our visitors and even for those who never visit our public places." RM